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ARE WE HAVING FUN?
Some people believe film critics are cold-blooded. Whereas many audiences hope to come away from a movie shaking with fear, helpless in mirth, or simply bursting with happiness, a critic sneaks away from the show, a little hunched, with a secretive smile on his face. It’s almost as if the film were a bomb, or a bombe, an artful explosion, and the critic was a secret agent who had planted it and now takes a silent pride in the way it worked. And how it worked. Audiences believe they deserve a good time, and some feel that dismantling the machine can get in the way of the fun.
That’s some people—thank God it’s not you. If it were you, you wouldn’t be holding me in your hand or your lap, ready to read a book about how to watch a movie. Your being here suggests you feel the process is tricky enough to bear examining. In the first sixty years or so of this medium, the cinema behaved as if pleasure was its thing, and its only thing; but in the sixty years since, new possibilities have emerged. One is that pictures are not just mysteries like The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, but mysteries like Blow-Up and Persona,or Magnolia or Amour, which ask, well, what really is happening, what do these cryptic titles mean, and what are those frogs in Magnolia meant to be? There is something else: a wave of generations now think some movies might be as fine as anything we do, as good as ice cream or Sondheim, things you can’t get out of your head, where watching (or engagement) becomes so complex and lasting that you may welcome guidance.
In the 1960s, when “film study” first took hold in academia, there were well-meaning books that tried to explain what long shots and close-ups were, with illustrations, and what these shots were for.Such rules were at best unreliable. They felt as if assembled by thought police, and they depressed anyone aroused by the loose Bonnie and Clyde–like impulsiveness on screen. I pick that film because it’s symptomatic of a sixties energy in movies, a feel for danger and adventure: hang on, this is a bumpy ride, and should we be having such fun killing people? Is it a genre film about 1932 or some cunning way of talking to 1967?
I’m more interested in discussing that experience: the way film is real and unreal, at the same time; what a shot is, or can be, and a cut; how we work up story from cinematic information and the helpless condition of voyeurism; what sound does (its apparent completion of realism, as well as its demented introduction of music in the air); the look of money in movies (no art has ever been as naked about this, or such a prisoner to it); the everlasting controversy over who did what; and the myth known as documentary (is it salvation or just another story-telling trick?).
More than that, the ultimate subject of this book is watching or paying attention (that encompasses listening, fantasizing, and longing for next week) and so it extends to watching as a total enterprise or commitment. Driving can be fun, too, and its passionate progress resembles movies—its motion is emotional. But a driver has to watch not just driving, but the road, the light, the weather, and the unexpected action of strangers. So as well as discussing movies, I will speculate on reading, looking at paintings, watching wildlife at the beach, or the wilder life in people close to you, and the total matter of how we see ourselves in life. It comes to this: a hundred and fifty years ago, people lived a life and referred it to books, games, and works of moral instruction. But in the time since then we have acquired this mechanism that mimics the way we attend to the world as a whole. Often enough, it supplants living, to say nothing of moral instruction. So we watch, but we watch ourselves watching.
Think of these models: there is watching as surveillance, or bearing dispassionate witness: you see waves breaking on the shore; you see flowers bloom and wither; you see your own infants become adults. This watching takes years; it lasts out your life. And it dismisses most schemes of judgment, even if that lesson takes time. But then something happens in the spectacle: one wave coming in bears a body—is it a corpse or a mermaid? That flower you’re seeing is picked by a good-looking person. Your child is doing something dangerous. The melodrama of story begins, and movies cling to melodrama.
Once upon a time, movies had elementary and appealing mysteries or quests in their shape. Like “the lost girl.” So many movies had that mythic pursuit: in Way Down East, Lillian Gish plays a fallen woman—can she be rescued? In Sunrise, Janet Gaynor is a wife on the edge of being murdered—will she be saved? In City Lights, the tramp loses the blind girl once she can see. In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman was lost to Humphrey Bogart, but here she comes again—can she save him? In Out of the Past, Mitchum loses Jane Greer, but then he has the bad luck to meet her again. Gone Girl is about a wife who has vanished, leaving the husband to explain the black hole.
Then something shifted in the potential of the myth, as movies became more searching. Finding the girl, or saving her, was no longer a simple means to happiness. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a lost soul, and loses her, but then her twin appears—is this to save him or destroy him? In L’Avventura a woman goes missing and we search for her...until we forget the search because there is a new woman. In Persona, a great actress stops dead one night onstage—and a nurse takes her over. In Chinatown, the full tragedy hits when the lost girl is rescued. And then in Luis Buñuel’s That ObscureObject of Desire, a man’s search for a magical woman is confounded because there are two of her. (The way there were in Vertigo?) That’s a brief history of the movies in which the message is not just “aren’t movies fun?” but “are you watching closely enough?”
You’d better be, because these days, as you know, a carefree state of mind usually means you are being watched.
There are so many ways of watching—and so many definitions of what a movie might be. You can observe as a helpless onlooker, even one as neutral or powerless as a camera. But when the camera’s detached record is examined, many watchers may say, “Look—look at the power of the camera!” Sometimes to understand that power we have to watch someone watching.
Already, I’ve used words that require attention. Take “fun” as a starter. It’s the automatic assumption of many people still that we go to the movies for “fun,” though others say the “entertainment” industry has done its best in the last few decades to kill that habit. But “entertainment” is another tricky word. It easily translates into having or being given “a good time,” and over its history the business has described that as escapism, relaxation, getting away from real life and its insoluble problems for ninety minutes—taking it easy in the midst of a life that can be unbearable.
In Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1942), we meet a very successful Hollywood director, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who has had hits like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. But he’s troubled—the look of vexation on McCrea’s swell face is one of the film’s first comic delights. He wants to be serious, to have respect and...books written about him? He yearns to encounter real life and put its tough tales on screen. So he dresses up as a hobo and goes on the road. To cut a long story short, he ends up sentenced to six years on a chain gang in the South. (Hard stuff now—worse in 1942.)
His life there is grim and without prospects. But on Sunday the prisoners are taken to a nearby church for a movie show. They see a Disney cartoon, starring Pluto, and Sully starts to laugh along with the other no-hopers and feel better.
Now, Sturges is a great director, and this film is a merry satire on Hollywood and pretentiousness, as well as a sweetly organized comedy. Moreover, it was made at a desperate time across the world in which the relief of movies was as treasured as it has ever been. And there is Sturges warning filmmakers against undue gravity and self-importance. Why not let the chumps laugh and have a good time? I like that attitude (I was born in 1941 and grew up in a strange nostalgia for the war and its uneasy deal with happiness), and I still cling to the hope that there can be good movies that entertain nearly everyone without being stupid or dishonest.
Don’t forget that, even in 1940–45, the world was making some of its best and most enduring pictures—The Shop Around the Corner by Ernst Lubitsch; The Lady Eve, another Preston Sturges picture; His Girl Friday and To Have and Have Not by Howard Hawks; The Letter by William Wyler; The Maltese Falcon by John Huston; Lauraby Otto Preminger; Meet Me in St. Louis by Vincente Minnelli.
Those Hollywood pictures easily qualify as “entertainments” and they were all popular successes. But the list can be expanded to include riskier ventures from dangerous times and other countries: Henry V by Laurence Olivier; Rome, Open City by Roberto Rossellini; Les Enfants du Paradis by Marcel Carné; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson; and even Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. Not all of those were hits, or comfortable to watch. Yet they have passed into history as classics because enough people have become accustomed to expecting films to be more than fun. They might be art, too. Don’t be put off by that word: art can be appealing and informing (another word for entertainment). It can be fun, too.
Not that “fun” covers film in the war years adequately. In 1945, British and American military film crews went into concentration camps that had just been liberated: Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald. Russian crews had been at Auschwitz. The footage shot in those places was not fun, yet it was reasonable to say it demanded to be seen. Film has that power: seeing can be believing. Under Sidney Bernstein of the Psychological Warfare Division, the British planned a filmed report to be called “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.” Alfred Hitchcock was one of the professionals called in to help on the project. The footage is hideous, terrifying, and the record of a turning point in human history, as well as necessary evidence. It is worse than anything you have seen before, yet absolutely essential.
Then, in the recovery effort after the war, the authorities determined that the planned film risked upsetting viewers and deterring progress and reconciliation. So it was shelved. The material would not be seen widely until 2014, when André Singer released Night Will Fall, a documentary that describes the 1945 attempt. It is still something everyone should see, and watch and talk about.
There are situations in our lives where the way we watch the world may be necessary for the continuation of life. How to Watch a Movieis a guide to studying film, and having more fun and being more moved. But watching is a defining part of citizenship, a bearing witness. Ordinary Germans who lived close to the camps elected not to “see” them. Some of the most striking scenes in Night Will Fall are of those citizens being marched through the stench, the horror, and the neighborliness of the camps. If you can’t or don’t watch, you have no chance of knowing what is happening, and film—in all its uses—offers some prospect of seeing the facts. For while the camera is a machine, you are not.
These days, a movie can be as short as ninety seconds, and you may find it just four inches by three on your computer. I am going to propose in this book that our old defnition of “a movie” is nearly worn out. For decades, we had a shared sense of the word: a movie was something made, advertised, playing at your local theater; it was ninety minutes (once), and now it is over two hours; it tells a story according to certain conventions we all used to understand. But now...
Well, those conventions are in turmoil, and a lot of people don’t actually go to see “a movie,” but they watch movie, or moving pictures, which can be a friend making faces at you on an iPhone, television commercials, some weird twenty-second dream you find on the Net; or the eighteen-inning game between the Giants and the Nationals (2014), which has an apparent unity or story, but is also a chaos of fragments because of the ads, the graphics, and the slow-motion analyses. All of this and much more counts as “movie.”
I was arguing with a friend as to whether Columbia University should confer an honorary degree on Derek Jeter, the longtime shortstop for the New York Yankees who was then nearing the climax to his farewell season, 2014. My friend felt Jeter was a natural candidate; I was less sure, even if my doubts were fixed on the rationale behind honorary degrees as a whole. But then another friend asked if I had seen Jeter’s Gatorade spot. I went to YouTube for one of the most artful pieces of moviemaking of the year.
It is a small movie, and as old-fashioned as Tyrone Power, in black-and-white, and shot on a fine summer day. The “golden” patina of the imagery suggests well-being, contentment, and humidity-free bliss. This is added to by a persistent stress in the imagery so that it keeps surging from right to left in terms of camera movement, its line of action or the destiny of its hero. These devices have been used in movies for a hundred years, though some viewers hardly notice them because they are emotionally transported by their momentum.
The character here is Derek Jeter—tall, still young, with a shaved head, a simple collarless shirt, and an easygoing, genial regard. He is in a cab, on his way to a game at Yankee Stadium (a trip he has made thousands of times, if seldom in a cab). Then he stops the driver and says he’ll walk the rest of the way.
I’m not sure how often Derek has done this in life, and I’m sure that on his journeys to the park Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” was not playing in the air. But Sinatra’s assurance now harmonizes with the warmth of the image and the thrust of its direction.
People notice Jeter—he is famous all over the country, never mind in the Bronx. He smiles, nods, and speaks to fans—I should say that I have no reason to suppose Derek Jeter is...
From one of the most admired critics of our time, brilliant insights into the act of watching movies and an enlightening discussion about how to derive more from any film experience.
Since first publishing his landmark Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975 (recently released in its sixth edition), David Thomson has been one of our most provocative authorities on all things cinema. Now he offers his most inventive exploration of the medium yet: guiding us through each element of the viewing experience, considering the significance of everything from what we see and hear on-screen—actors, shots, cuts, dialogue, music—to the specifics of how, where, and with whom we do the viewing.
With customary candor and wit, Thomson delivers keen analyses of a range of films from classics such as Psycho and Citizen Kane to contemporary fare such as 12 Years a Slave and All Is Lost, revealing how to more deeply appreciate both the artistry and (yes) manipulation of film, and how watching movies approaches something like watching life itself.
Discerning, funny, and utterly unique, How to Watch a Movie is a welcome twist on a classic proverb: Give a movie fan a film, she’ll be entertained for an hour or two; teach a movie fan to watch, his experience will be enriched forever.
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Description du livre Paperback. Etat : New. Language: English. Brand new Book. In his most inventive exploration of the medium yet, David Thomson--one of our most provocative authorities on all things cinema--shows us how to get more out of watching any movie. Guiding us through each element of the viewing experience, considering the significance of everything from what we see and hear on-screen--actors, shots, cuts, dialogue, music--to the specifics of how, where, and with whom we do the viewing, Thomson explicates the movie watching experience with his customary candor and wit. Delivering keen analyses of films ranging from Citizen Kane to 12 Years a Slave, in How to Watch a Movie, Thomson shows moviegoers how to more deeply appreciate both the artistry and the manipulation of film--and in so doing enriches our viewing experience immensely. N° de réf. du vendeur BZE9781101910849
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